History of Preston Hall
David Burton Fowler bought the grounds of Preston in 1820 from Sir Robert Johnson-Eden. At that time, they were more extensive and included four farms, a quarry and a brickworks. By the time the Hall was finished in 1825, Fowler had reached the grand old age of 89 – it is unknown whether he ever lived there himself, as he died just three years later.
Before the 1820s, a modest building in the grounds (on the other side of what is now Yarm Road) served as an early version of ‘Preston Hall.’ This had existed since at least the 1760s and would remain in place for over two hundred years, until it was finally demolished in 1974, by which time it had been put to use as a farmhouse.
David Burton Fowler’s great-nephew, Marshall Robinson, inherited the Hall and its grounds at that time, after first taking on the surname ‘Fowler.’ During his time there he became a highly respected member of the community, much like his successor, Robert Ropner, would be sixty years later. However, it was said that he hated the new Stockton & Darlington Railway line, which ran through the grounds of Preston until about 1852. He lived in the Hall until his death in 1878, at which time it was passed down to his son, Marshall Robinson Fowler II. The new owner kept the Hall for four years, before selling it to Robert Ropner in 1882 for £27,500.
Across several decades, Ropner added a number of Victorian extensions to the Hall and became very wealthy, working tirelessly to benefit the community and gaining many accolades. In 1924, Ropner left the Hall to one of his sons, Leonard Ropner, which was an unusual bequest as Leonard was the youngest. Leonard would live in the Hall until 1937, but by the time of his death the family was less well-off than it had been, so his nephews decided to sell it to a company called Ashmore, Benson & Pease Ltd. During World War II, the north east was considered a major bomb target due to the high density of industries, so the company moved its offices to the Hall from its original location in town for safety.
By 1944, the Hall’s future was looking decidedly bleak. It was passed from company to company, ending up in the hands of the Moorhouse & Barker Company, who bought it for £7,250. They had plans to demolish it to make way for a housing estate – it was the Hall’s darkest hour. Then, in 1947, the Hall was saved by Stockton Borough Council who bought it back for £12,975. By this time the Council had a considerable collection of artefacts which they wanted to display in a museum; Preston Hall was the perfect venue.
On June 3rd, 1953, during the coronation celebrations for the newly-crowned Elizabeth II, Preston Hall was officially opened for the first time as a public museum. It proved highly popular and its collection continued to grow rapidly, eventually reaching roughly 100,000 items. A refurbishment was undertaken in the late 1960s following the creation of the County Museum Service, with a grand reopening in 1969 featuring a number of new exhibits. In the 1970s, the museum was then redesigned once again, with the addition of a replica of a Victorian street, a long-time favourite with guests.
It was in 2008 that the museum won a successful bid for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for nearly £7 million, allowing for the first large-scale renovation and restoration project since it became a museum. Additional financial support was provided by Stockton Borough Council and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, and various parties such as Tees Archaeology, Quarmby Construction, RS Displays and Pollen Studios played major roles in the three-year project. In 2012, the museum reopened with a brand new image and its reputation as one of Stockton’s major cultural attractions was reinforced tenfold. It reached its Diamond Jubilee the following year, and continues to intrigue and inspire the people of Stockton with exciting programmes and themed events.